some rhetoric

I know I haven’t posted much here recently (mainly because I’ve been a bit busy with research that is far too dull to post here), but thought I’d upload this exerpt from a debate paper I wrote. It was originally in response to a lame question like, ‘Is religion the cause of the worlds problems?’  but it provoked some quite neat expressions of my position on some other issues. For the record, I was writing for the opposition (No) side.

…With the Middle East conflict, as with all conflicts, there are two conflicting sides. But the real divide between sides is not between Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs. Which of those sides one might take is, to a large extent, irrelevant. The religious divide is not the real divide. The real divide is, as always, between those who think it is possible to justify violence against innocent people; and those who do not.

The first side – which has held the balance of power for too long – believe that there are circumstances under which there are sufficient reasons for innocent people to be violently harmed. ‘Harm’, in this case, might involve blowing people up or shooting at them; but it can also be taking their homes, throwing rocks at them, kidnapping them, stealing from them, refusing them medical supplies. (It’s important to note, as John Stuart Mill does, that ‘causing offence’, unless there is good reason to believe that offence will provoke violence, does not constitute actual harm. If it did, then we would have to put health warnings on debate chambers, comedy clubs and anywhere else where people are free to voice their opinions).

Those who lie on this first side of the divide use many means to justify violent harm (or to explain it away). Generally such justification means invoking past events, tribal differences, or, admittedly, religious metaphysical claims – for example, the will of a God or Gods. And, it is true, those who base justification for harm on such metaphysical claims often do the most terrible harm of all, because there is nothing in the physical world that can disprove their reasoning.

But that is not the same as saying that religion is the dividing factor, let alone the cause of harm. Many people hold metaphysical beliefs without ever feeling the need to cause harm as a result; and so we must conclude that religion does not always divide people. However substantial the specific differences of their metaphysical beliefs are, how real that divide feels to many people, it is in fact only a superficial dividing line; far from being divided by religion, those on the side of violent harm are in fact united by their mutual taste for, or tolerance of, tribalist inhumanity.

Now, on the other side of this divide are those us for whom nothing in this world, or beyond it, can justify violent harm to an innocent person.

We do not attempt to defend any military action which harms non-militants.

We do not consider any past event to be a justification for killing in the present or future.

We stubbornly refuse to lay blame along tribal lines, and we firmly believe that one must publicly condemn the violence of one’s own tribe just as vocally as one condemns the violence of another: failure to do this is equal to justifying the violence of one’s own tribe.

In the Middle East, We are not crudely ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’. We are, in fact, pro-Israel because we are pro-Palestine, and we are pro-Palestine because we are pro-Israel: we recognise that neither will have security, economic development and a good quality of life until both do, and every act of harm committed against a non-combatant from either tribe can only further endanger those on the other.

And certainly, we seek to explain and understand the psychology of violence, but we never do so in order to justify it. We will not be held responsible, as those on the other side of this divide are, for violent harm to innocents of any religion or tribe – except in our failure to condemn and hold to account those who have caused that harm.

Now, many of us, too, hold religious convictions. I am not one of them. But  for those of us who do, these convictions frequently confirm their belief that the innocent must be protected. Religious and political ideologies can only support this belief; they do not harm it.

Nor, for the record, is it either a left-wing nor a right-wing belief. It is a belief in the value of life, the rule of law, and decency towards our fellow humans, which unites both side of the left/right divide, as well as uniting religions.

Still: a divide exists – and all of us are either on one side or the other. But the divide is more significant than mere politics, and more urgent than religion. Religious and political affiliations are used as a tool used by those on the side of cruelty in order to drive a wedge between us. But we must recognise that while innocent lives are at stake, these supposed divisions are not what really divides us.

It is for all of us – religious and secular – to recognise what really divides us, and which side we really want to be on.


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